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Web Letter

Mr. Cockburn's departure from the evidence of human-induced climate change reminds me of the reality jump Christopher Hitchens took over the Iraq war years ago. But the disaster in Iraq may be child's play compared to the crisis that climate change may cause.

Mr. Cockburn's facts are conveniently incomplete and at times simply wrong. Here is one example. Serious climate scientists do not doubt the historical CO2 temperature lags and even predicted finding it some years ago. Warming cycles are indeed natural and traditionally instigated by "forcings" other than CO2 (changes with solar radiation, orbital cycles, etc.). Carbon traps like the ocean release their CO2 over time in response. The problem is that the released CO2 then becomes a feedback loop that intensifies the warming. The very same lag data show that. So what is scary about our current warming is that if human carbon-burning activities have started the current warming (yes, human-driven carbon in the atmosphere is proven by isotope data) and if the oceans follow the lag model and release their carbon, the feedback on top of our CO2 could be more potent than in past warming periods.

Eric Christensen

Bethesda, MD

May 8 2007 - 2:31pm

Web Letter

I always enjoy Mr. Cockburn's column and often agree with him. But it was funny to see him pretending to be a scientist and statistician in his recent piece on global warming. Cockburn writes "The two lines on that graph proclaim that a whopping 30 percent cut in man-made CO2 emissions didn't even cause a 1 ppm drop in the atmosphere's CO2. It is thus impossible to assert that the increase in atmospheric CO2 stems from people burning fossil fuels."

It is obviously ridiculous to say that because a drop in measured CO2 emissions wasn't reflected in a corresponding drop in atmospheric CO2, we can't say that an increase in emissions is (or might be) related to an increase in atmospheric CO2. The most you could conclude from the data illustrated in the graph is that under certain circumstances a reduction in man-made CO2 emissions will not necessarily be reflected in a reduction in atmospheric CO2, at least not over the timescale given in the graph. I think Cockburn should stick to social and political issues or at least consult a real expert in statistics next time.

John deChadenedes

Bainbridge Island, WA

May 8 2007 - 11:40am

Web Letter

(1) Production of atmospheric carbon dioxide varies widely from year to year, but global average temperature rises steadily. --This proves nothing except that many factors besides atmospheric carbon dioxide affect global average temperature, which nobody denies.

(2) Data on the world's average temperature are not very reliable. --No data are complete, but what the incomplete data that we have, as even Hertzberg acknowledges, indicate global warming, not global cooling or global climate stability. It is not very likely that the global average temperature is rising nearly everywhere we measure it, but falling or remaining steady everywhere we don't measure it.

(3) Water in the form of oceans, snow, ice cover, clouds, and vapor are greater factors in climate change than the greenhouse gases. --This is a nice hypothesis, but what Hertzberg needs to show as a greenhouse-skeptic is, firstly, that changes in all these factors better account for observable global warming than the increase in greenhouse gases, and secondly, that these changes are not themselves CAUSED by the increase in greenhouse gases.

(4) Since there was more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere 20 million years ago, during an ice age, we have no need to worry. --Ice ages were probably not caused by increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide, since what could have caused these increases? It is more reasonable to assume that global cooling decreased plant activity, slowed the plants' absorption of carbon dioxide and thereby increased carbon dioxide in the air. To say that global cooling can cause atmospheric carbon dioxide to rise is by no means a challenge to the claim that carbon dioxide can cause global warming--or ameliorate global cooling, which it probably did during Earth's ice ages.

(5) "It is the warming of the Earth that is causing the increase of carbon dioxide and not the reverse." (Hertzberg) --In light of the data to which Mr. Cockburn refers in his article, which show "undulations" in the observable increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide that closely shadow the ups and downs of human economic activity, the claim that the Earth's warming is more responsible for this increase than we are would be a weak one indeed. But let us allow, for the sake of argument, that the warming of the Earth--caused by God knows what ultimate factor other than greenhouse gases--is causing an increase of carbon dioxide, as Hertzberg claims. This claim in no way challenges the claim that an increase in carbon dioxide is also contributing to global warming.

(6) Global warming believers are like medieval Christians, calling us all sinners. --The global warming theory is not a theory of God's wrath. It is a theory that we are the cause of the global warming problem, and hence also that we are its solution. It is seeming "optimists" like Mr. Cockburn who would have us trust the gods, much as the ancient Stoics resigned themselves to a cosmic fate that they regarded as completely beyond their control.

Eric Paul Jacobsen

Saint Paul, MN

May 7 2007 - 1:51pm

Web Letter

Is Alexander Cockburn a Sinner?

When I opened my most recent copy of The Nation and started to read Alexander Cockburn's "Is Global Warming a Sin?", I felt déjà vu all over again. It was just like being data mugged by a "LaRouchie" on my way into the grocery store. First clubbed with grand statements of unbelievable absolute truth followed by a fine sprinkling of small, irrelevant, and out of context factoids.

There is no bibliography, external references, or other justifying data to give it any sense of veracity. Just pomposity and trivia to create artificial talking points. Cockburn does not deserve to be in charge of any talking points. It is Cockburn who needs to read deeply and respond honestly to the consensus of the scientific community. A good start would be the very clear and complete exposition on global warming by Professor John H. Seinfeld at the California Institute for Technology presented in his Watson lecture March 7 of this year. It is probably available on DVD. He has also authored the standard textbook in Atmospheric Science, Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics: From Air Pollution to Climate Change, 2nd Edition (2006). And yes, we are largely responsible for producing the greenhouse gasses now warming the earth. But that is also good news because that means we are not helpless. We can stop producing greenhouse gasses. Can we stop producing obfuscation?

While his science is worthless, Mr. Cockburn's article does raise several other issues:

1. Why is The Nation magazine printing such trash? This article has all the intellectual depth of Fox News (oxymoron intended). LaRouchies may be a hazard of going to the grocery store but I should not have to put up with such intellectual insults in a magazine I pay money for and subscribe to for access to conscientious reporting and thoughtful, honest opinion; neither of which describes Mr. Cockburn's article. However, if The Nation has been acquired by Rupert Murdock, please let me know so I can cancel my subscription.

2. Mr. Cockburn has cherry picked a few pieces of data and one man sporting a PhD in order to counter the emerged consensus of the scientific community on the cause of global warming. Scientific theories are complex structures of interrelated data from hundreds or thousands of experiments conducted over years by a multitude of scientists in a wide variety of disciplines and subjected to endless trials of interpretation. A scientific consensus is never going to be validated or invalidated by any one single isolated piece of data or the opinion of a single isolated scientist even of the highest rank. This scientific process has much in common with any attempt to arrive at an honest objective truth; for example, good journalism.

3. The most damning (pun intended) statement Mr. Cockburn makes is to equate the acceptance of the scientific consensus on global warming with an act of faith. Now Mr. Cockburn is sounding like a creationist claiming that science is just another form of religious faith. Is he perhaps going after Darwin next? I suspect that he is just using this fallacious and cynical argument deliberately because the right-wing repetition of this absurdity seems to distract from real issues.

4. In an odd role reversal of science and religion, he does seems to want science to absolve him for his gas guzzling SUV. If you do not believe man is causing global warming, then your SUV is not sin? If you believe asbestos is harmless, then you can give it to children? If you do not believe in global warming, then you can give it to your children?

5. Science is not a religion. Science is a process for arriving at an objective truth without leaning on any faith based assumptions. Consequently, scientific truth is always tentative (bummer). It can change over time (like asbestos being a danger). But maybe not very much (expect no miracles). However, science does produce very powerful and essential ethical rules that govern its community. Lying, misrepresenting, or distorting scientific facts are science's secular equivalent of mortal sins. Neither science nor scientists can exist without this code of ethics. So while I would say that global warming itself is a fact and not a sin, lying or misrepresenting the facts about global warming is a sin. Perhaps Mr. Cockburn can escape this sin through the loophole that he is not a scientist. I will at least concede that no one would ever mistake Mr. Cockburn for a scientist just as no one would ever mistake the LaRouchie for a scientist--or a journalist.

In his next article, Mr. Cockburn is going to talk about hoaxers. Who is he going to finger? Will it be the Bushies (politicians all, not scientists) who have been lying and distorting in all areas of science for the last six years? Or will he target some part of the scientific community who refuses to publish upbeat articles on the insignificance of human involvement in global warming. Organizing scientists is like herding cats. Imagine how difficult it would be for a group of scientists to create and perpetrate a hoax while writing peer-reviewed articles and performing repeatable experiments. I wish we had that kind of transparency in our government. Whatever hoaxes Cockburn comes up with, I hope they include something believable, like an alien abduction.

6. One point Mr. Cockburn sort of got right is that as the earth warms more CO2 will be released just because the earth got warmer. But Cockburn stated it backwards and ironically in the form of one of the classic lines humorously attributed to an industrial polluter: "That lake's not polluted because of the poison we pour in, it's all those dead fish in the lake." As we warm the earth with our coal and oil, the arctic permafrost is melting and exposing enormous quantities of organic material containing billions of tons of carbon that had been sequestered for eons. Sequestered no more, this will add billions more tons of CO2 to the atmosphere. Shall we do something about global warming or talk about sin?

James Collier

Glendale, CA

May 7 2007 - 2:30am

Web Letter

As an educator working in science and technology, I am deeply saddened by Mr. Cockburn’s column. Democratic debate on environmental policy must be informed by basic scientific and mathematical literacy. Cockburn displays both an abject lack and disregard for such literacy.

Well, I’m an educator, here goes. Cockburn argues that global CO2 production must not cause the rise in atmospheric concentration of CO2 because a drop in global production during the Great Depression did not cause a drop in global atmospheric concentration. Try an experiment, Alex. Put a large pot of water on a gas stove, start warming it with a low gas flame and slowly increase the flame’s intensity. Take careful measurements of the water temperature. Now decrease the flame a bit for a few moments, and then return to the slow increase. You will note that the temperature of the water keeps climbing! Following Cockburn’s reasoning we can now conclude that there is no relation between the gas flame and the heat of the water. You may want to review your learning in the area of differential equations, Alex.

I haven’t the time to deconstruct the many other factual omissions and examples of specious logic, but there are plenty in the article. Scientific consensus emerges from a process of accumulating experimentation, reasoning and logic. It is subject to political influence, and there are historical examples of broadly held scientific misconceptions. But the broad progress of science may be the greatest world legacy of the enlightenment, along with political democracy. The emerging global scientific consensus on climate change continues this precious heritage. The accumulating facts in the scientific literature deserve far more respect than Cockburn shows. And the readers of The Nation deserve more respect for their ability to reason.

John Ment

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

May 5 2007 - 4:56pm

Web Letter

I find it curious that the "(*) Editor's Picks" of the bletters are the most contentious of the bunch. The polite and well thought out scientific response is given a pass... could it be that you are trying to stir up mischief here?

Unfortunately, I have to assume that you aren't--it would be too much fun. So, on to my own boring response:

I can't completely disagree with Mr. Cockburn, which is in my opinion the danger posed by his position. By presenting a small piece of the puzzle of human impact on our planet, and by then debunking that single piece, he takes away credibility from the entire puzzle. As a strategy, it is hardly new... just pay attention to any political race. Discredit one statement made by a person, and that person becomes wholly unfit as a candidate.

The response above by Mr. Jones in Thailand explains the science of CO2 better than I ever could, and refutes many of Mr. Cockburn's arguments. However, for the sake of argument let's grant Mr. Cockburn summary judgment on CO2 and look at some other factors:

Many of the same human processes that create CO2 also create NOx, nitrogen oxides. The combustion of fossil fuels is a primary source of nitrogen oxides, and one of the reasons that modern cars have a catalytic converter. The United States remains a major producer, at this point primarily from power plants and the agricultural use of nitrogen-based fertilizers. Nitrogen oxides can be destructive to both O2 and O3 (ozone) as well as producing both smog and acid rain. While our production of nitrous oxides is slightly reducing, we are surpassed in output only by Asia, putting us clearly in the lead per capita.

The overall impact of nitrogen oxides is debatable, I suppose. I have a personal bone to pick because I have seen the air quality degrade over the last ten years in my two favorite national parks, Arches and Canyonlands. I don't have studies to back it up, but I have pictures of the scenic views, and I can tell you that visibility and air quality are decreasing. Park rangers I have spoken too have agreed.

Another point, and I think even more important to overall climate change, is that of deforestation and urbanization and its effect on water vapor. Mr. Cockburn claims that the bulk of the greenhouse effect is caused by water vapor, a valid point as the estimate of water vapor impact is as high as 70 percent while CO2 impact is only as high as 25 percent. Massive deforestation removes a major CO2 consumer and O2 producer, as well as water absorber. Subsequent urbanization involving resurfacing areas with pavement and concrete increases production of water vapor, as there is nowhere for rain water to be absorbed but back into the air. Additionally, heat from the sun is immediately radiated back into this man-made water vapor instead of being absorbed slowly into the earth. It's a bit of a stretch, but I can imagine how this could contribute to more violent weather, as surface air temperatures are not stabilized by heat absorbed many feet into the ground.

There are many other sides to this discussion, including the effect of ozone depletion on plankton affecting the carbon cycle of the oceans affecting both aquatic life and greenhouse gases. Exactly how much humans impact the environment is debatable, but it is pretty clear that human creations do indeed impact the environment, often with negative results.

By picking on one point of global warming only, Mr. Cockburn adds to the political climate that sees ALL points of global warming as lacking credibility. I respect his position as a skeptic, and share some of his opinions, notably that "carbon credits" are a politically motivated bad joke. Nonetheless, I think it is unjust and unwise to back up skepticism with isolated and incomplete arguments.

Aaron Barbour

Thornwood, NY

May 5 2007 - 1:53pm

Web Letter

Mr Cockburn--I congratulate you for your intellectually honest and courageous article. I have believed for some time that the theorists have the formula backwards. Since the earth is "warming," it naturally follows that the oceans will be unable to absorb as much CO2.

Further--is the surface of the earth getting warmer? Of course!! Ever experience the heat of a WalMart parking lot?! To say it plainly, more asphalt will generate more heat. But of course, you cannot influence the believers, as you are questioning their religion. I would avoid cocktail parties for awhile, if I were you...

Will J. Lee

Rockten, IL

May 4 2007 - 8:49pm

Web Letter

"Is Global Warming a Sin?" you ask?

Well, not responding to it is either sinfulness or stupidity; take your pick.

What are you, sinful or stupid?

Todd Peterson

Washington, DC

May 4 2007 - 7:18pm

Web Letter

When I read your editorial I couldn't believe it! I couldn't believe an otherwise serious journalist would make such outrageous, simplistic, aggressive statements (as relates to the way he categories a huge swath of people, esp. when such a large percentage of them are obstensably on his team! Does he actually expect to influence people like that?).

I am presuming there will be a Katrina-like storm (warranted, too) of letters responding to this, and some have already began to dismantle these ignorant statements line by line, so I will be brief, and just relay my emotional response here.

Mr. Cockburn, you have done a grave disservice to the planet on this one and purposefully or not have given a strong volley of support to the likes of the "Competitive Enterprize Institute" you know the folks who brought us: "Some call it (CO2) pollution, we call it life!" et al., thanks for nothing!

Maybe you can get a spot on Glenn Beck's "Climate of Fear" programs too... I expect my right-wing buddy in Florida to e-mail me this story any day now (he sends me every example, from all six skeptics, he can find that "expose" the "hoax" that is climate change. He will undoubtably relish "rubbing my nose" in this one as it comes from the "liberal" camp!).

I have lost a lot of respect for you now, and will add you to the growing list of failing journalists of late (Friedman, Woodward, Miller...)

Can't wait to see who the "Hoaxers" are...let me guess Al Gore is the leader too?

In the meantime perhaps you should expand your list of subscriptions beyond the social political realm...say, like Scientific American, Nature and Science magazines if you want to fully educate yourself on this complex topic.

Jason Pechinski

Boston, MA

May 3 2007 - 3:17pm

Web Letter

What's the matter with Alexander Cockburn? Why take the word of an amateur rather than that of the overwhelming majority of climate scientists?

Why throw in with the likes of Rush Limbaugh, who gleefully read this column to his dittoheads today?

There is in Cockburn's rant his characteristic, cranky prejudice against "the authorities," a trait that has served him well, more often than not.

This time, however, he comes across as a crank. Being a curmudgeon is a crapshoot, I guess.

Mateo Pardo

Denver, CO

May 3 2007 - 1:26am

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